GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — According to the National Civic League, Grand Rapids is an “All-America City.”
The award bills itself as a title earned through teamwork and ingenuity, working together to solve problems. No other municipality in the state has earned the moniker three times — 1949, 1960 and 1981 — and historian Todd Robinson said city officials wanted you to know about it.
In his book, “A City Within a City,” Robinson explained that city leaders erected a sign at the city limits to tout the honor in 1961, reading simply “Grand Rapids — All-America City.” The motto was everywhere: bumper stickers, flags, sidewalk trash cans. Grand Rapids police officers even wore a patch adorned with the motto. And while there are plenty of things for Grand Rapidians to take pride in, the label “All-America City” papered over some of the problems that were tucked away, out of the spotlight.
The city held invisible barriers separating the community by race and income. Those barriers date back to the city’s early days but were exacerbated in the 1930s by a process called redlining. The scars of segregation and the impact of redlining is something that we still see today.
Robinson put it more aptly. He referred to Grand Rapids as a “suburban dream (with an) urban crisis.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EARLY GRAND RAPIDS
While Michigan’s soldiers proudly represented the union and fought to end slavery, racism and white supremacy were still prevailing philosophies across the state.
In the 1920s, Grand Rapids South High School — considered the city’s “most prestigious” at the time — had an established KKK club. In 1924, Grand Rapids served as the city for the Ku Klux Klan’s annual “Western State Klonovokation” — a three-day event that brought an estimated 6,000 Klansmen to the city. In 1925, the KKK held a parade on July 4, allowing the Klansmen to march through the city and promote its racist and antisemitic values.
Randal Maurice Jelks, a professor of African, African American, and American Studies at Kansas University, said plenty of the bigotry was unabashedly on display but even more was veiled, baked into the way the city of Grand Rapids and its communities operated.
“Michigan’s Jim Crow customs were often disguised in arguments about free enterprise and the freedom of association,” Jelks wrote in his 2006 book “African Americans in the Furniture City.”
Grand Rapids’ furniture factories, which served as the city’s dominant industry for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, wouldn’t hire Black employees. Company owners argued that if they hired Black workers, their white employees would protest. According to Robinson, a ban on Black employees was one of the few elements where companies and labor unions easily found an agreement.
The National Urban League published a study in 1940 about the employment barriers that hindered minorities. In it, the president of American Seating pushed back at the notion that his company had a discriminatory hiring policy. He said it was simply that no “competent” Black workers had applied.
That 1940 analysis showcases some pretty stark numbers. The National Urban League reported at that time the city employed 1,330 people. Of the 1,330 employees, only 10 were Black and nine of them worked “menial jobs.” Grand Rapids’ eight utility companies had more than 1,000 employees but just three Black employees, all janitors. The city’s seven banks had more than 300 employees and even provided services for Grand Rapids’ Black residents but their lone Black employee was a maintenance worker.
Grand Rapids was proof that — even in a northern state — the public and private enterprise was set against allowing the Black community to climb the income ladder. By the time of the Great Depression, cities and banks would find yet another tool to maintain the social norms: redlining.
THE BANKING COLLAPSE
Redlining was born out of the chaos caused by the Great Depression. The housing bubble created by the red-hot roaring ’20s economy quickly became an anchor, sinking banks across the country in the wake of Black Friday. According to Matthew Daley, a history professor at Grand Valley State University, Michigan banks were particularly doomed by the state’s implemented design.
“That’s a traditional American fear, that banks would get too big. So Michigan, by law, limited banks to only having branches in one county. So it meant that most banks were undercapitalized,” Daley told News 8.
Michigan’s banks did find ways to circumvent the laws, making “casual agreements” with outside financiers to gather more capital and spread out the risk on individual mortgages. But by December 1932, the house of cards started to fall.
“Union Guardian Group, who is financing a lot of this, they’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t have any money anymore. Sorry about that,’” Daley said. “You can see the chain escalation … the banks just begin to spiral.”
The spiral continued until Feb. 14, 1933, when Gov. William Comstock declared a “banking holiday.”
“Nearly every bank in the state of Michigan closes. The governor of Michigan on Feb. 14 says, ‘We have got to stop the panic’ and shuts off everything,” Daley said. “About one third of all the banks in Michigan never reopen because they are just collapsed. It’s just a fiasco.”
The city of Grand Rapids lost about $300,000 through the People’s Savings Bank and was forced to send the city comptroller and six police officers to the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation in Lansing to get a loan to keep the city afloat.
In extreme circumstances, some communities — including in Kent County — had to send deputies door to door to connect with homeowners and explain the mess.
“They would say, “We don’t know who really owns your house. Stay put. We’ll get back to you because the bank is gone. There is no fiduciary officer to take your payment even if you are able to make it,’” Daley said.
The banking collapse paved the way for the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, a new federal entity to establish a “better” way of handling mortgages and building in more safety nets for banks. The HOLC invented the 15-year fixed-rate mortgage and made monthly payments the norm instead of annual payments.
The HOLC also invented redlining. After three years of providing emergency loans, the HOLC went through its records for more than 200 urban areas across the country, including 10 in Michigan. The maps dissected neighborhoods based on similar characteristics, including property values, the average age of buildings and the neighborhood’s potential for future development.
However, the key stats that stand out are the racial demographics. Instead of being a tool used to help banks understand which mortgages would present the least amount of risk, it ended up being a tool of oppression.
Grand Rapids’ HOLC map was released in 1937. Six neighborhoods received A grades, 20 received a B, 28 received a C and seven received a D.
The bigotry is baked into the form. The National Archives has copies of each neighborhood analysis by the HOLC. The Ottawa Hills neighborhood, A3 on the 1937 map, is called the “most desirable section of the Grand Rapids area.” It is noted for having no “foreign-born families,” no “negros” and no “relief families,” which meant none that were on welfare.
The Sherman-Union neighborhood, D4, received a D-grade despite having access to “all city facilities” and “good transportation and schools.” It was marked down for the “type of dwellings and inhabitants.”
The Sherman-Union neighborhood was noted for its “substantial” number of Black families and families on welfare, though the analyst did note that the “negroes in (the) area are of better type.”
Daley notes that the HOLC maps didn’t solely oppress African Americans. The definition of “white” was much different in 1937 than it is today.
Grand Rapids’ West Side, D7, was downgraded because, along with aging buildings, it had a large Polish population and families on welfare. The analysis of the Clancy Neighborhood, D6, said it had an “infiltration of Italians” and that it is an “infiltration of people of lower living standards.”
“Whiteness in America has grown,” Daley said. “You and I (referring to digital journalist Matt Jaworowski) have vowels at the end of our names. And if we were in 1930? Not white. But whiteness expanded to where (we) could join but other communities could not.”
Looking at redlining from the opposite lens, it’s easy to see how a process wrought with bigotry would work against minorities. Black people were considered a neighborhood deterrent and would hurt the bank’s investments. Naturally, lenders looking to maximize their profits would design a system built to keep black people out of the nicest neighborhoods and away from those investments.
But lenders were far from the only problem. Most real estate agents wanted nothing to do with Black customers and it had little to do with personal biases.
“Realtors could be penalized for representing a Black family. They would risk their livelihood,” Liz Keegan, of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, explained to News 8. “It took some courage and some creativity.”
According to Keegan, agents that worked to help Black families purchase homes in affluent, white neighborhoods could be fined or even lose their real estate license. Some real estate agents toed the line, while others used white allies to their advantage.
“There were individuals who would represent Black buyers, white friends that would go and be a straw buyer and represent a Black family in order to get that home. They invented all sorts of ways to try to work around that system,” Keegan said.
The biased homebuying market kept Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods mostly segregated for decades. According to a 1940 survey done by the city, 40% of Black families said finding homes “outside of the prescribed minority boundaries was virtually impossible.” A 1964 report from the Grand Rapids Urban League found that 88% of the city’s Black families lived within five census tracts of land in the city.
Following decades of disinvestment, most of the homes in the few neighborhoods where Black families could find homes were in poor shape.
According to the 1950 census, about 7,000 families in Grand Rapids lived in substandard conditions. Of those, roughly 1,500 lived in homes without a refrigerator and 800 lived in homes without a sink.
A 1952 report from the Michigan Committee on Civil Rights found that “inadequate living conditions” put Black residents at a higher risk for “tuberculosis, pneumonia, rheumatic fever and social disease.” Children were at the greatest risk. The 1952 report found that 6% of white children died before turning 5. The death rate for Black children in Grand Rapids was 22%.
“YOU KNOW YOU’RE A NEGRO”
The few Black families that did manage to make it into upper-class neighborhoods still faced a lot of blowback.
In “A City Within a City,” Robinson detailed some of the families who had managed to buy homes in white neighborhoods.
According to Robinson, as of the late 1940s, Dr. Robert Claytor and his wife, Helen, were one of five Black families who had managed to buy a house in the Grand Rapids suburbs. Claytor was able to walk the racial boundaries because he had many “white” features, notably light skin, green eyes and straight hair. According to Robinson, some real estate agents even toured homes with him until they realized he was Black.
Helen Claytor detailed the house hunt in a 1990 interview with the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council.
“He was then told that all the houses they looked at were sold. Word seemed to have gotten around in real estate circles that a doctor who did not look like a ‘negro’ was looking for a house,” she said.
The Claytors were only able to find a home by dealing directly with a buyer.
“(He) saw a sign in the front yard that said, ‘For Sale By the Owner’ and he realized by then the runaround by the real estate people, so he stopped in to look for the house and … although he didn’t think it was ideal, it was a house big enough for the family,” Claytor said.
Still, their fight was far from over. Once the neighbors realized what had happened, they organized and looked for a way to buy the house back. Helen Claytor said the neighbors suggested they “would be happier with (their) own people across town.” But the Claytors had no interest in moving and with talks going nowhere, one woman finally broke down and blurted, “You know you’re a negro.”
Roger Wilkins had a similar story. Like Claytor, he was also a doctor. His wife had also gone to college and was a member of a sorority. The only thing that set them apart from their affluent neighbors was the color of their skin.
“Our house was just about the biggest in the neighborhood, and we had a nicer car than anybody on the block,” Wilkins said in his memoir. “I was pretty sure that none of the other men was a doctor and that the women probably hadn’t even gone to college, much less been Phi Beta Kappa. And, though that bit of social calculus was somewhat comforting, when it was all done, the other people were still white, and I was still a negro. There was no getting around it.”
BEYOND RACIAL BOUNDARIES
With the civil rights movement playing in the background, the city of Grand Rapids faced a new set of problems. As Black residents fought for more freedoms and worked their way into better neighborhoods, many white residents countered by leaving the city altogether.
According to a report from the Grand Rapids Herald, the population in Grand Rapids grew by 3.3% between 1950 and 1953, while the population of Grand Rapids’ suburbs grew by 91%.
The migration — known as “white flight” — took much of the city’s tax revenue to the suburbs where new developments took hold. The suburbs grew around new shopping districts, including Woodland Mall in Kentwood, Rogers Plaza in Wyoming and North Kent Mall in Plainfield Township.
Grand Rapids celebrated after being one of the first cities in the nation to finish its federally funded expressways. But those highways only helped exacerbate white flight, along with expanding water and sewer services. Eventually, the loss of tax revenue caught up with the city.
“The attempt to build outside Grand Rapids without investing in the central city proved costly, as racial isolation returned to haunt the metropolitan core region,” Robinson wrote in “A City Within a City.” “The ‘All-America City’ of Grand Rapids was hit with the cruel irony of financing the city’s demise.”
It took decades of investment to turn the tides in downtown Grand Rapids, attracting new businesses and resetting a foundation to put the mid-sized city back on the map.
The fight for equality eventually claimed a victory in 1968. On April 11 — one week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Within the bills are Titles VII and VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act, expanding on previous legislation to ban discrimination based on race or national origin.
Said Johnson: “With this bill, the voice of justice speaks again. It proclaims that fair housing for all — all human beings who live in this country — is now a part of the American way of life.”
While the fight for equality continues on many fronts, the practice of redlining was formally abolished and the right to fair housing was set as an American value.
— This article is the first of a four-part series looking at redlining and the fight for fair housing in Grand Rapids.